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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 28: World Building Gender Roles

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 28: World Building Political Correctness. [Note: later in the podcast, they changed the name]


Key points: Writing gender issues is hugely challenging. Be wary of 21st-century sociological conventions in anachronistic settings, but be aware that readers may have trouble empathizing with very different thinking and sensibilities. Subtle changes are more easily believable than huge changes. World building -- is it important to the plot or characters? If not, don't overdo it. Recognize that you may have a blind spot regarding gender issues -- write your story your way, then listen to your alpha readers, and address their concerns. 

[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] And we're in trouble.
[Brandon] I'm going to start off by saying this was not my title. You guys decided on this, so you can blame Howard for this. What in the heck do you mean by world building political correctness?
[Howard] When you write... let's say medieval fantasy, when you write women in medieval fantasy and the women are strong willed and their husbands don't...
[Brandon] OK. You are already in trouble. Because you're implying that women aren't strong willed?
[Howard] No, no... when the women are strong willed and their husbands don't immediately beat them for it? You may have...
[Brandon] I don't think that... that's a completely different thing. But... how about this? Women who are looking to advance women's liberation issues in a medieval fantasy.
[Howard] Yeah.

[Dan] Let's basically say using 21st-century sociological conventions in an anachronistic way...
[Brandon] Either in fantasy or even in far future science fiction. How do you do this? Do you actually do it? I'm a poster child for this. I've said it from the beginning when people have asked me. I'm generally not interested in writing about people who think like someone would during the 11th century.
[Howard] Neither am I.
[Brandon] I'm not interested in reading about it... well, I'll say, when an author does it really well, like in Doomsday book, I'm interested in reading about it, but it's hard for me to connect with those characters. So I do not write books like that. I always say, different worlds, different things advance in different ways. I have never written a book that has been set in medieval times. But even my books that are set in early modern times, I have people... their sensibilities are more like modern people. I just say, look, they developed differently on this world. Some people don't like this. Dan, you were saying your brother...
[Dan] Yeah, my brother... Hi, Rob!... he has this complaint very frequently about your books and about other fantasies that he's read. It has actually to some degree turned him off to a lot of fantasy because he hates to read something that is not modern and yet people have very modern senses of personal freedom, and women's rights, and all of these things that we have now -- so we assume they are natural, but they have not existed forever, and might not exist 5000 years in the future.
[Brandon] I think that really what we're saying here... this might be a short podcast... well, they're all short... what we're saying here is that you have to decide. Make a decision on this.

[Dan] Let me ask the question to you, then. Do you write these kind of civic issues the way they do because that's what you want to read about or... with Mistborn, did you go back into it and say this is how they developed? Did you actually do some hard-core world building then?
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. Generally I do that. But it's usually with me saying, look, I don't want to write someone who thinks that way. I don't want to write a society where everyone is extremely chauvinistic. It's not interesting to me. I have trouble empathizing with those characters. Some other people have done it very well, and done a very good job of it. I don't want to go there.
[Dan] So what did you do then when building this society? Did you think to yourself I need a specific event to have happened a 100 years ago that means there were...
[Brandon] One of the things I do... for Elantris, one of the things I did is I allowed instantaneous communication, which I think... personally, communication -- the development of communication had a large change on the world...
[Howard] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] Liberating people and allowing people to be informed. The printing press and instantaneous communications gives... in Elantris, in a Renaissance level technology, but with the early 20th century or late 19th century sort of sensibilities in this way. It's because they have the printing press and they have instantaneous communication. It wasn't as big an issue in the Mistborn books because I was setting it in my head technologically in the mid-1800s without gunpowder because the Lord Ruler simply suppressed that technology -- took it away and killed anybody who knew about it. In that case, we do have a social evolution where people have gone through all of these revolutions and change and we've got sort of a revolutionary culture and the concepts of personal freedom are very important to people because you've got so many people who are approaching the sort of concept of American revolution era or French revolution era. This is what people's mindsets are. So it worked very easily in that. But in other books, I've simply said, "You know what? They just developed differently."
[Dan] OK.

[Howard] In Schlock Mercenary, I initially imagined a crew that was almost all male. I can imagine that 2 to 300 years from now, we will have militaries that are fully integrated.
[Brandon] Power armor really kind of changes things.
[Howard] But it's entirely possible that 800 years from now, for whatever reason, we have militaries that are completely non-integrated. I see these things as being inherently cyclical. In Schlock Mercenary, I'm able to address some of these inequities. I can have a captain who is not comfortable being in the chain of command of a woman. Yet we have a woman as a High Admiral in the UNS right now. Tagon never questions that she is there, he just doesn't want to be in her chain of command.
[Brandon] Lois Bujold approaches these things very well in a lot of her books, particularly science fiction. What she will do is she will ram different planet's cultures into each other, and say this one has developed this way and this one has developed this way, and allows you this sort of friction to deal with these concepts.
[Howard] And it builds conflict for her stories, which is wonderful. The way I'm doing it, it builds conflict for the characters in such a way that I'm able to tell jokes. Because of the cultural context of the reader of Schlock Mercenary, they are jokes that the reader is going to get in is going to appreciate because some of these issues are issues that we are still dealing with.
[Brandon] One of the things I will mention here, just for aspiring writers. I've read a lot of books where the female character fighting against a chauvinist society and trying... doing all of that. It's been done a lot. It's been done well, it's been done poorly, but a lot of new writers seem to fall into this trap, that the first thing they latch onto if I've got a female character in a medieval society -- she's going to be the oddball. Everyone else acts like you would expect them, but she's going to be oddball, and she's going to want to fight for women's lib. Which you can make a convincing argument for saying one person can think differently than a society... someone else might make the argument that that doesn't really happen that often, but you could make that argument. But it's been done so many times. Even in Elantris, where I have Sarene doing that a little bit, people come to me and say, "You know what? I'm kind of tired of this trope. Just so you know. You did it just a little too much." So... I don't know. Have you guys seen that? What is your response to that?
[Dan] One example I think did this pretty well was actually a movie about Marie Antoinette that had I think Kristen Dunst as Marie Antoinette. It was a very feminist movie in that it was depicting this woman oppressed by her status and by her gender and at times and place she lived in, but she herself was not in any way a feminist. She was certainly a product and creature of the period she lived in, but the movie, because of the way it presented her, got all of those points across without having her act anachronistically.

[Brandon] OK. I'm going to rename this podcast World Building Gender Roles. We're going to talk some more about this when we come back from the advertisement which we're going to do for the gathering storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.
[Dan] Oow. I hear it's pretty good.
[Brandon] I've heard that that's pretty good. They have an audio book, you know, and it's read by Michael Kramer and Kate Redding. Little fun factoid -- the reason there are two readers for the Wheel of Time audio books is because Robert Jordan himself asked if we could have a man read the male viewpoints and a woman read the female viewpoints. That was him.
[Howard] I've listened to the first five or six -- all the way through the first five, halfway through the sixth Wheel of Time audio book. I have to confess, listening to the first book, when Kate Redding first starts reading, it was very jarring because there's a good three or four hours or more of just male viewpoints. But now, it's very refreshing.
[Brandon] Some people think that they are among the best readers of audio books in the business. I think they do a fantastic job. I hear there's an interview with that Brandon Sanderson guy on the audio book somewhere... I think at the end or something like that.
[Dan] Ooh. Sign me up.
[Howard] If you're not tired of listening to Brandon on Writing Excuses.
[Brandon] Number One New York Times bestseller. There you go. Is that...
[Dan] Self-serving enough for us? Yes.
[Howard] I'm glad we gave up the pimp music thing back in season one because that would've been a lot of humming.
[Dan] I know. We wouldn't even have been able to hear Brandon.

[Brandon] OK. Gender roles.
[Howard] World building gender roles.
[Brandon] Gender roles. How do you approach doing gender roles in your fiction? I've already said that the woman fighting against a chauvinistic society is kind of a cliche. But we'll add the caveat that anything done really well, it doesn't matter if it's a cliche, it can be done really well. I actually wanted to promo The Gathering Storm partially because I think Robert Jordan has a very fascinating way of looking at gender roles in his books. Because he actually takes a few steps forward and says... takes a concept and takes a few steps... world builds it really the way that you should. Meaning in his world, women have access to magic, and men if they use the magic go insane and kill everyone that they love. That changes the way that the genders interact.
[Howard] Changes things very significantly. David Brin wrote a book... and I'm struggling to find the title of the book and I can't... we'll get it in the liner notes... in which men and women have been genetically reengineered so that the time of year during which they... the women become pregnant determines what kind of child is born. What's fascinating is that the gender roles are largely reversed in that book. Women hold most of the places of power. Men are looked down upon as being weak and very emotional. And the way in which they are looked down upon, we look at it as readers, and we think, "Oh, well, yeah, men kind of do that. How come we don't get accused of being weak and emotional in 20th century -- 21st century Planet Earth?" There was one scene where there is a man who is from Earth who has none of these biases and he's riding a horse. The women are all shocked. How can men possibly ride horses without crushing their equipment?
[Dan] There was an episode of Sliders which is not known for its brilliant writing in the first place. But they had an episode where they went to the obligatory parallel world where women ran everything.
[Howard] Oh, that was the toilet seat episode.
[Dan] It presented it terribly. Because the way it got its point across was to have, anytime they wanted to raise this issue, they did it with awful maid and butler dialogue, where they are like, "Well, as you know, our emotional cycles are hormonally whatever..." It just really ruined everything. You have to be careful about the way you get these differences across. You can't be too overt about it when you're shaking it up.
[Howard] I think I saw three minutes of that episode walking into a friend's house. It was the part of the episode where... yes, we know you're hiding men in this house because somebody left the toilet seat up.
[Dan] That was the only clever part of the episode. Arguably, of the series.

[Brandon] Subtle changes, I think tend to be... getting us back on track... tend to be more useful than huge overarching changes. You've got to remember that human beings are generally going to be biologically... they're going to act in certain ways. There are certain things hardcoded into us. What is hardcoded and what is not is an area of discussion that's very interesting in science fiction and fantasy. But I would say to readers be very careful of the matriarchal societies because again, it's very easy to fall into cliches rather than doing very interesting things. The really great books I've read that do this take a step and say OK, they're different from us, but the same concepts are still there treated in different ways. Subtle changes instead of huge changes. What else... what other advice can we give people when they are world building gender roles?

[Dan] Let me ask this question, because earlier we talked very briefly about the future of an integrated military and you mentioned power armor. A complaint that I hear a lot, often from current military people, is that they just don't believe that future integrated military because of the way women are built biologically. Do you have to get into that and explain, well, it works because of power armor, or it works because of this, or do you just ignore that aspect of your readership?
[Howard] The way I explained it in the Schlock book where I actually focused on those characters was that the tanks that the guys were using... the many tanks that were designed for the Obenn, the koala sized guy -- well, not sized -- built for soldiers who were around 5 feet tall. There were a couple of women in the company who were just the right size for that. One way to approach this is to say, "You know what? In space, space... physical space is very, very valuable." In a spacecraft, in a robot suit, smaller is better. You don't necessarily want to be a big person.
[Brandon] I've seen that done with fighter pilots. Saying... making female fighter pilots makes more sense because of the weight... it can... having smaller people, less weight on your fighter, therefore more maneuverable, these sorts of things. I don't know. I do think you want to be addressing these things. But there's so much discussion, so much argument, so many different opinions. I've heard people say the reason they don't believe in an integrated military is not because of the way women act, but because of the way men act. If you throw a woman onto the field, the men will ignore their orders in order to protect the women against what is best for the company, or for themselves, or for the woman or for anyone...
[Dan] Yeah, to protect or to hit on or whatever...
[Brandon] Because of the psychology of the men. I do think these are things that you need to deal with. OK, need to... I'm going to say that this is one aspect of world building. Again, remember, whenever we world build something, you can't do everything. In some cases, you have to say this is not important to the plot. This is not important to any of the major characters. Therefore, this is something that I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about.

[Howard] I think for beginning writers, the best advice is to listen to this podcast and recognize that you probably have a huge blind spot with regard to gender issues. Write what you're going to write anyway, and listen to your readers. Listen to your writing group, listen to your alpha readers. Listen to them as they talk about this and see if there are ways for you to address it. Writing gender issues is hugely challenging.
[Brandon] It is. But I find it one of the most fascinating parts of science fiction and fantasy is one thing to approach. The Left Hand of Darkness, the Wheel of Time books, all of these where they change things subtly and the gender roles become different. It's something we can approach in our genres that you can't approach in a lot of other genres.
[Howard] David Brin's Uplift series did away with the him and her pronouns. It's a fascinating read because halfway through the book you realize, oh, wow, my language really is male centric. Mister Brin has gone and fixed it.

[Brandon] All right. Let's go ahead and give a writing prompt. I'll make myself... oh, you're pointing at Dan. Howard chose you. Dan, you're going to have to do it.
[Howard] Dan is scowling at me.
[Dan] OK then. All right. You are writing a future society, a future military, where the only people allowed in the military are homosexual and you need a good explanation of why.
[Brandon] That's an excellent writing prompt. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: gender issues, gender roles, world building, writing excuses
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